Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment

Did you know that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world? At least it did in 2012, according to the essay by Jeremy Travis and Bruce Western in this collection edited by Angela J. Davis. Besides having a high incarceration rate, the U.S. also jails black men at a much higher rate than white men, and it’s not necessarily because they commit crime at a much higher rate. It’s that the system treats their crimes differently.

The essays in this collection explore the many ways that the criminal justice system singles out black men, starting with the police on the streets and going through the courts and sentencing. The combined effect is a picture of a world where black men cannot get a break, where they’re treated with suspicion whatever they do, and where they face more dire consequences for their actions. The writers look at recent stories that made headlines, such as the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile. But they also look at less well-known cases, and they dive into the long history of the criminalization of blackness, as with the Fugitive Slave Act.

Each essay exists independently, which meant that the collection on the whole was sometimes repetitive, with more than one writer discussing, for example, implicit bias in detail. But each essay addresses a different aspect of the problem, and together they provide a full and distressing picture. The authors provide extensive notes, referencing both studies and news articles that show what racist policing looks like close up and what the overall trends are.

One of the pieces I found most interesting was Kristen Henning’s “Boys to Men: The Role of Policing in the Socialization of Black Boys.” She describes how young black boys’ personal experiences with the police as well as those of their families shape their attitude toward the legitimacy of the law itself. Even more important, the system tends to treat black boys as adults, often dangerous adults, when they are, in fact, children. As Henning says,

Kids will be kids—impetuous, emotional, and reactive. This is what any parent knows, and this is what the neurological and developmental research confirms. … Children are also particularly sensitive to issues of fairness and respect and are more susceptible to peer influence than adults. Thus, even when children remember their parents’ advice and know it is dangerous to talk back to police, they often cannot help it, especially in fast-paced, emotionally charged situations like those involving the police.

She suggests that police receive training in adolescent behavior so they will better understand what normal adolescent behavior looks like and how to respond productively. When it comes to the police, training is essential. This is not an anti-police book. It focuses on the behavior and looks for corrective solutions. Henning’s essay is the best at this, but many of the authors focus on implicit biases that come out of being born in a world where racism, subtle and overt, is all around. The system is treated as the problem.

Another important point addressed in Travis and Western’s “Poverty, Violence, and Black Incarceration” is that the tough on crime stance in which people, usually black men, face arrest and sometimes stiff sentencing for minor drug violations hasn’t actually had much of an effect in stopping crime. What it has done is break up families and place serious financial burdens on those left behind when family members are imprisoned. The resulting poverty can lead to higher crime rates—and so it goes.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading this. These kinds of stories are always distressing. But when it comes to racism, especially implicit racism, it takes an effort for all of us to notice it and change our mindsets. Reading books like this is part of that work, for me. The information here may not all be new to people who’ve already studied the subject, but it provides a good overview of the problem from a variety of angles.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | Leave a comment

The Lightning Thief

lightning thiefI mentioned a little while ago that I’m having a book club with my kids this summer, each one separately. The first book I read with my 9-year-old son (chosen from my list) was The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz, and we both thought it was fantastic. This time, it was my son’s turn to choose anything he wanted to read, and he chose Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. (I can’t tell you what his reaction is yet! I just finished it and handed it over!)

If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t read this series, the premise is that Greek/Roman gods still exist and live in America, having followed “Western civilization” wherever the main center of it might have gone. (*cough* Neil Gaiman *cough*) The gods are basically who they always were, having arguments and rivalries and curses and (this is the important part) affairs with mortals, which means you also have demigods. This brings us to our narrator, Percy (Perseus) Jackson. Percy knows nothing about his special nature. He just thinks he’s a troubled kid with some eerie experiences who can’t stay in a boarding school longer than a year. Cue more eerie experiences, including a math teacher who turns out to be one of the Kindly Ones, and he’s learning a lot about the gods, his own true nature, and his quest to find Zeus’s missing lightning bolt.

This book was almost 400 pages long, and I read it in less than 24 hours. It was a very fast-paced, exciting, and fun late elementary or early middle-school read. Percy teams up with Grover, a satyr (who, naturally, likes to eat tin cans), and Annabeth, a daughter of Athena, and heads out across America on buses and trains lest Zeus zap him out of the sky. The most fun part of this was the throwaway stuff. If you know a lot of Greek mythology, you’ll catch quite a few references Riordan doesn’t bother to explain, or doesn’t explain until much later. If any of you have read all of these, does that kind of thing continue? I have to think he used up a lot of that in the first book. Not the mythological framework, of course, just the constant, fun barrage of references you have to be knowledgeable enough to get.

The other thing that was very creative was the notion that if you’re diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, you’re probably a demigod. Your eyes are hardwired to read ancient Greek; your hyperactive reflexes are meant to keep you alive on the battlefield. Forget the meds. Look into your true parentage.

The book was not terribly well-written. Lots of one-sentence paragraphs, lots of fading to black. It didn’t have a deep, good-hearted moral center the way the Harry Potter books do, made of friendship and loyalty — just kind of quest and Big Good vs Big Bad. A bit superficial. But I’d be willing to believe that develops over the course of the books. All in all, I’m not sorry I read it, and I’ll have fun discussing it with my son, but I’ve read better. Anyone want to encourage me to read the sequels?

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The Devil in Silver

Pepper got into a fight at the wrong time. The police officers who broke up the fight were near the end of their shift, and it was too much trouble to fill out the paperwork needed to arrest the big man, so they took him for a 72-hour stint in the mental ward instead. When Pepper fails to cooperate with the staff, the 72 hours turn into weeks and then months. He’s given drugs he (probably) doesn’t need, is restrained for days, has no one to call for help, and doesn’t get anything that looks like a proper evaluation. On top of all that, the Devil is one of the patients. Locked in a separate ward, this monster with a body of a man and a head of a buffalo, bursts violently into patients’ rooms at night. Pepper is determined to stop it.

This novel by Victor Lavalle starts off with a bang. Pepper’s situation is serious, even without a monster, and every move he makes to get out just makes things worse. The system is designed to keep people (and monsters) in, and the system is working. Even the staff who want to be helpful don’t have much choice. They don’t receive enough pay to stick around, the equipment they’re given is substandard, and the patients are unstable enough to keep the staff hardened for their own safety.

But Pepper finds help in a team of fellow patients. There’s Dorry, the elderly woman who makes a point of welcoming everyone and showing them around. Loochie, a teenage girl, is tougher than she looks. And Coffee, Pepper’s roommate, claims to have the contacts to break the whole thing wide open. But the system works to keep the team from ever making any serious headway.

After a while, the book turns, as Pepper befriends a Chinese woman he calls Sue. Their romance is a sweet and joyful respite, but deportation and the Devil lurk in the background, and finally Pepper has to confront the lurking monster.

Reading this immediately after White Tears was an interesting experience because it suffers from the opposite problem. It starts off as a horror novel and turns toward realism. Both parts of the book are successful, for the most part, but the Devil drops into the background for too long at times. I wondered if it could have been excised from the plot entirely or minimized much earlier, perhaps presented as a rumor rather than reality.

Despite that, I enjoyed the characters in this book, and I appreciated Lavalle’s interest in shining a light on how institutions sometimes don’t operate for the best interests of those they’re supposed to serve. The patients in this hospital are a source of funds. Helping them learn to live on the outside means losing those funds. Regulations are an inconvenience, followed only when authorities are watching. And if there’s a cheap and easy way to get something done, that’s the thing to do. All of that is where the novel’s horror is. It’s not the Devil that’s the problem.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Someone At a Distance

someone at a distanceI remember when Persephone reissued Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At a Distance in 2011. It felt like everyone was reading it; it was as much in the air in my own private blogosphere as the latest Scott Turow or Dan Brown probably is in some other people’s. Teresa read it, too, and I think didn’t enjoy it as much as the generality of people did, which might have put me off reading it for a while, because I trust her taste so much. But I have finally got round to it, and I thought it was so, so good.

It was written in 1953, the last of Dorothy Whipple’s novels. All her others had been solid bestsellers, and this one wasn’t quite as much of a success, if I’m understanding the publication history correctly — not enough “madness and passion” to suit the publishers. But there was quite enough madness and passion to suit me, at least.

Avery and Ellen have a happy, confiding marriage. They live in a lovely, comfortable house, which Ellen manages mostly herself because of the Servant Problem (more on this later.) They have two children: Hugh, who is serving in the Army before going into publishing like his father, and Anne, who is still at boarding school. Both children adore and are adored by their parents. Ellen spends her time in her beloved garden, and Anne comes home to ride her horse Roma; there’s nothing the family wouldn’t do for each other.

Into this picture of postwar domestic bliss comes the stranger. Avery’s mother, lonely and unhappy at “not coming first with anyone any longer” now that her husband has died, decides to put an advertisement in the paper for a companion. She decides on Louise, an extremely polished, composed, and self-determined girl from a small town in France. Can you guess what happens after that? Can you?

In one way, this is a fairly straightforward story of infidelity and the destruction of a marriage, with the attendant heartbreak and embarrassment. In another, it’s a carefully-constructed character study. Whipple doesn’t waste a scene: at the beginning, each character is set up to do exactly what he or she goes on to do at the end. Avery and Ellen’s relationship, for instance, on page 11:

Not that he had not bewildered her at first. In their early days together, he sulked heavily when she offended him. To punish her, he wouldn’t eat. He would either fling away from the table leaving his food untouched, or would refuse to come to the table at all. Ellen was astonished. Very young in those days, she didn’t coax him as his mother had done, but kept going to look at him with wide grey eyes, rather like one child staring at another who is behaving unaccountably. She herself continued to eat throughout his sulks, never dreaming of abstention.

Here, Avery’s essential inertia, his childishness, the fact that his mother coddled him and brought him up to be “coaxed,” his temper, his desire to “punish” someone else for his bad temper — all this comes out in a few sentences. Likewise, we see Ellen’s even keel, her inability even to understand such entitled and self-destructive behavior, her refusal to stoop to his level. All this blossoms in the rest of the book as events unfold. This is true also of Louise, who has bitter pain in her background that causes her to dig in to what she can acquire — respect, or love, or status, or at least possessions — more and more gracelessly through the novel. (Louise, too, “never dreams of abstention”!)

Apart from the artificial mainspring of the book — the advertisement that brings Louise into the family (surely a woman like Mrs. North would have wanted an English girl and not a foreigner) — this book was so good at showing characters in a muddled situation. Yes, Avery’s vanity and Louise’s were a match for each other. Yes, Ellen’s pride, her painful embarrassment at being deceived, and her care for her children would dictate her actions, even if it wasn’t the most sensible path to take. I believed every word, and was captivated.

One of the really interesting themes in the book, as I mentioned earlier, is the Servant Problem, as it so often is post World War I. Servants — cooks, maids, gardeners, mother’s helpers — won’t live in Ellen’s house; it’s too far from town and not enough to do. So she has two part-time “day women” to help her, and does the rest herself. When she separates from Avery, she realizes that the skills she’s developed as a homemaker are the only skills she has to make a living. Mrs. Beard, the marvelous manager of an old people’s residential hotel in this novel, puts it plainly, siding with Ellen:

We’re not the new sort of women with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women who married too young to get a training and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.

Ellen finds a place for herself in this world, with these skills, helping to solve the Servant Problem with her own hands when her husband deserts her. Is this pre-war wistfulness, an unrealistic happy ending for a genuinely virtuous character as well as for society? Or is it women helping other women, as Mrs. Beard helps Ellen and Ellen helps Mrs. Beard in return, finding another unhappy woman a place at the same hotel?

I would certainly recommend this book. I admit I would have preferred the very last page to be different, but right up until then I enjoyed the entire thing. Are the rest of her books along these lines? What else might I read by her?

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

White Tears

Seth was a quiet, standoffish, broke college kid when he first became friends with the wealthy and popular Carter Wallace. Obsessed with sound recording, Seth was testing out some new equipment he’d cobbled together when Carter approached him, asked about the set-up, and then invited him to his dorm to listen to music. Seth had previously avoided older music, believing that “there were certain echoes I couldn’t afford to hear.” But Carter was fascinated with the music of black musicians from the past, and as his obsession with collecting old, rare recordings grew, Seth came along.

After graduation, the two set up a studio, bankrolled by Carter, and their sound is in high demand. Seth spends his free time wandering New York, picking up ambient sounds of the city. Then, one day, he picks up a bit of blues music he’s never heard.

On the audio, I can hear the change in the position of my head, the mics over each ear picking up a slightly different range as I swing round to listen. I don’t know how to explain what happens next. My memory is clear. There was a skater, a girl. You can hear the rumble of a deck, but it’s in the background. I distinctly remember turning to watch her. I saw long black hair, tattooed sleeves, a nice ass in cutoffs, weaving between dog walkers. How would I know that if I hadn’t turned? But the audio shows I didn’t.

Seth doesn’t think much of it, but when Carter hears the recording—which includes a complete song, not just the single line that Seth remembered hearing—he becomes obsessed with it. And when he creates a fake 1920s singer named Charlie Shaw and uploads the file to the internet, things get complicated. Turns out, there really was a blues singer named Charlie Shaw. Or was there?

There’s a lot going on in this novel by Hari Kunzru. At first, it seems like a standard realistic novel with a little weirdness around the edges, but it takes a turn and becomes full-on strange. As Carter, and then Seth, try to understand what is happening, there are jumps back in time, starting as flashbacks but turning into (maybe?) something else. Whatever is going on, it’s dangerous.

In this novel,  is dealing with issues of cultural ownership and appropriation. Seth and Carter’s sound relies heavily on the art of others. Carter’s mania for collecting the work of black artists feels like a desire to possess something that isn’t his. Later in the book, there are also questions around whether Seth or Carter really own the work they’ve done together. These are all interesting questions, but I wonder if plot sometimes gets in the way of them.

Once the strange happenings begin, but story flips and reverses and turns in on itself in so many ways that it becomes impossible to work out what’s really happening. Maybe Kunzru is attempting to get at the impossibility around finding the real roots of a piece of art, because influences can be all over the place. There’s a conversation toward  the end about how Charlie himself is a product of other people’s ideas of who he’s supposed to be. (Or is he? Was that conversation real? The deeper questions get lost in the questions about the plot.)

For me, the twists and turns ended up being too much, especially as the book’s pacing picked up. There are also new ideas, such as about the prison industrial complex, thrown in at the end. An important subject, but coming as late in the story as it does, it seems like a late addition to create character motivation.

Also, the first part of the book didn’t provide enough menace and unease to lay the groundwork for the messy, more horror-laden second half. I felt about this the way I often do when so-called literary writers play with genre fiction. It’s straight literary fiction that becomes horror instead of being chilling all way through. (Compare with Universal Harvester, a literary horror novel that’s all horror set-up and turns literary with little horror payoff.) I’d rather read a book that’s committed to what it is from the start.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 9 Comments

Dolores Claiborne

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s novels and have a good sense of his style, but Dolores Claiborne surprised me. I knew the general outline of the plot before I picked it up, but I had no idea that the book is simply a 300-page monologue with no chapter breaks. Dolores is a woman in her 60s being questioned by the police about the death of her employer, Vera Donovan. Dolores is open about the fact that she didn’t much like Vera:

I swear before heaven I always knew that Vera Donovan’d just about be the death of me—I knew it from the first time I saw her. And look what she’s done to me. This time she’s really stuck her gum in my gears. But that’s rich people for you; if they can’t kick you to death, they’re apt to kiss you to death with kindness.

Dolores has lived her whole life on Little Tall Island, just off the coast of Maine. Back in the 60s, Vera had a summer home on the island, and she hired Dolores to keep it clean. As decades passed, Vera’s husband died, and she stopped seeing her children, and she began spending most of her time on the island. As she got older, Dolores became a companion and caretaker. Vera was prickly and difficult to work for, but Dolores insists that she didn’t kill her.

She is, however, ready to confess to something else—the murder of her husband, Joe. And that’s what most of the book is about: Dolores’s troubled marriage, its effect on her children, and the murder itself. The story is, alas, nothing new. Joe drank too much and hit Dolores. When she put a stop to that, his abuse turned to their three children, each of whom suffered in a different way. Dolores knew they’d have no kind of a future, and so she did what she felt she had to do.

Stephen King doesn’t always write great women characters. Often, his women are sidelined and not given much of interest to do. But I’ve found that when a woman is the focus, he writes them well. I’m thinking especially of Carrie White, Rose Madder, Lisey Landon of Lisey’s Song, Trisha of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and of course Susannah Dean of The Dark Tower. Mostly, I think, he writes his women like people, which obviously the thing to do, as we are, in fact, people. What I mean is, he doesn’t seem to be trying to make his women excessively different from his men. But he’s willing to put them in situations specific to women, as is the case with Dolores.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s not just about this one woman, it’s also about Vera and the bond she and Dolores share. These two do not have much in common, and they seem to love nothing more than getting the better of each other. But they have a bond, a sisterhood. They have both learned that, as Vera tells Dolores, that “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.” They are bitches together and toward each other, and they both seem to enjoy it. I liked them together.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything creepy or supernatural. The drama in the book is entirely about the real world, with only the slightest hints of the supernatural occurring around the edges. Those hints felt almost thrown in, and I think the book might have been better without them. They certainly weren’t needed.

This is not a Stephen King book I see talked about much these days. It doesn’t end up high on people’s King recommendation lists. I think that’s a shame. It’s a good choice for someone who just likes suspense and doesn’t want much horror. If you’re wanting to try King or expand your reading of his backlist, give this a try.

Posted in Fiction | 13 Comments

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Sherman Alexie’s new memoir is a combination of prose and poetry reflecting on his relationship with his parents, especially his mother; his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation; and his adult life away from the reservation. The emotions he expresses are complex and probably couldn’t be easily contained in a clear linear narrative, so he goes for a more thematic structure. There will be an essay about some incident from Alexie’s life, followed by poems reflecting on that incident, then a few more essays, a few more poems, and so on. It’s a journey through memory, rather than a story of a life.

I’ve not read much of Alexie’s work, just the novel Flight, so I might be an atypical reader for this memoir. I wanted to read it because I like memoirs, and because Alexie is reputed to be a good writer. I don’t know how much of the story here is presented in his semi-autobiographical fiction and therefore familiar to his long-time readers. What was familiar to me from reading Flight was the mix of sadness and smart-assery. He’s serious, but there’s an overlay of snark.

Alexie’s story, as presented here, is painful. He was born with hydrocephalus and had seizures as a child. He was diagnosed as bipolar as an adult and has frequent nightmares. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother was distant and sometimes cruel. He was surrounded by violence and was bullied at the reservation school. His family was poor. He was sexually abused by a neighbor. He felt out of place among Indians and only started to find himself by leaving.

As Alexie shares these truths, he acknowledges that they are his truths, not necessarily anyone else’s. Early on, he demonstrates how he’s an unreliable narrator of his own life by making up a conversation with another Indian storyteller about truth. He remembers everything, he says, but he’s also unreliable. I get the sense that he’s going for emotional truth more than literal truth.

This book feels a lot like Alexie’s attempt to figure out the emotional truth for himself, rather than to explain himself to other people. Out of all of Alexie’s family, Lilian, his mother, gets the most attention. The book was written around the time of her death, and it feels like he’s trying to understand her and his feelings about her. Along with that, he considers his relationship to the rest of his family, to the reservation, and to the Indian people as a whole. None of it is easy to pin down.

I enjoyed reading this. I like Alexie’s voice, and I appreciated the unconventional structure of the book. Life is too complex to fit in a linear narrative, and I think that by not attempting to come up with one truth, Alexie might be close to getting his story right.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 6 Comments


I don’t expect romantic comedies to be stressful, but the first third of Connie Willis’s latest novel was almost unendurable. It was entertaining, and I wanted to know where it was going, but I found almost every single person impossible to like, including the main character. Luckily, it does improve, but wow, it really does walk the line between annoying and enjoyable.

So what’s it about? Briddey Flannigan works at a technology company. The pace is frantic; everyone is connected all the time, and personal and business freely mix. So the whole company is abuzz with excitement, when Briddey’s coworker and boyfriend, Trent, asks her to undergo an EED, a medical procedure that will allow them to become emotionally linked. Briddey’s family, on the other hand, thinks the procedure is a terrible idea and pleads with Briddey not to do it. Of course, Briddey goes through with it, and complications ensue.

The first several chapters of this book focus on Briddey’s always-connected life (all pre-EED). As someone who values quiet and privacy, I found the constant communication impossible to even read about. I think I even felt my blood pressure rising as Briddey juggled texts, phone calls, and impromptu visits from family and colleagues, all demanding instant and complete attention. It’s too much for anyone, and I found myself getting irritated with Briddey herself for not putting a stop to it and giving me, her reader, some blessed relief. (The fact that I could put the book down and walk away only barely occurred to me, which probably says something about the difficulty Briddey would have shutting out the voices.)

The one character who isn’t impossible is C.B. Schwartz, a scientist who works in the basement, where signals are weak and no one wants to visit. He is a blessed oasis in the storm of Briddey’s life, even though she doesn’t want much to do with him. You can probably imagine where this will end up going.

The story is excessively silly, as Willis’s comedies usually are. I’m not always a good reader of comedies, but I enjoyed both To Say Nothing of the Dog and Bellwether, which are just as wacky and a lot less annoying. Crosstalk is a long book that probably should have been shorter, but the pace is quick. I didn’t warm up to many of the characters, although I grew to like Briddey herself, and some information revealed toward the end made me a little more understanding of some of her family. In the end, I didn’t dislike it exactly, but I never quite fell into the joy of it.

The book concerns itself with questions of individuality and privacy and our always-connected world, but I don’t think it has much that’s serious or new to say about it. Connection can be intoxicating in positive and negative ways, and it’s easy to end up with too much of a good thing. But complete privacy has downsides, too. Still, I’d take it over the alternative.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 10 Comments

The Year of the Runaways

year-of-the-runawaysFiction about immigrants is commonplace today, so much so that there’s a whole course about it in my university’s English department. (I’d like to take it, in fact. It looks fascinating.) But like all literature, I suppose, this is not a question of repeating the same story over and over again under different names. The colonial and postcolonial and subaltern experience is different, not just for different countries and different communities and in different directions and different diasporas and different religions and different castes and classes and genders (although, that), but for different individuals. The stories can never be told enough.

And this is what Sunjeev Sahota shows us in The Year of the Runaways. This is a book about four immigrants to Britain from India. Three are more or less illegal immigrants, and one is endangering her legal status by helping one of the other three. Their stories entwine, they have similar experiences, but each person’s history, each person’s temperament, each person is unique, worth worrying about, worth getting to know.

Tarlochan (known as Tochi), Avtar, and Randeep have all come to England to make money. Avtar and Randeep come from the same neighborhood, though they didn’t know each other previously. They wind up living together in a precarious work situation in Sheffield, one on a student visa, one on a marriage visa, both trying to scrape together money for their families. Tochi comes from the untouchable chamaar caste, and suffered discrimination and violence in India. Now that he’s in England, he’s wary and closed off, but at last he can find work, and he’s not afraid to do whatever he’s offered.

Then there’s Narinder. She is a very devout Sikh woman who is just trying to do right by her fellow human beings, and has agreed to be Randeep’s “visa wife” for one year, so he can get his papers and stay in England to make money. (The title, The Year of the Runaways, is the period of this visa year, and the seasons turn the pages.) Narinder doesn’t return Randeep’s increasingly ardent feelings and gives him no encouragement; she just wants to help him, because helping people is the right thing to do. But doing right, in this book, is a complicated matter, a balance between looking out for your own interests in a hard world and honoring ethics and religion. Both are necessary and the balance is almost impossible.

One of the themes of this novel is the way Indian values, like caste and faith and modesty and marriage, follow immigrants to new countries. The people (perhaps especially the women) have no real ability to assimilate, and live on the fringes of society, living half in their old world and half in the new, not able to take legal possession of the new land and not able to go back. Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder have confusing, painful, and saddening experiences in England, searching for work, undergoing hunger, missing home, trying to find a place in the world. The book isn’t glib about the cost of this search, or about the cost of doing right. Their stories are compelling.

This isn’t a perfect book. I’d say the main flaw is that Randeep and Avtar are too much alike from the beginning, and I had to keep turning back to figure out which one was which. (By the end I could tell them apart.) And I wanted to find out more about their stories, and the epilogue wasn’t satisfying. But Tochi and Narinder are marvelous, touching characters, and their slowly-developed, wary friendship was wonderful. In a world full of immigrants, full of so many throw-away people, this was a book that didn’t allow anyone to be discarded. I appreciate that.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Follow Her Home

follow her homeJuniper Song is your fairly typical Korean-American mid-20s post-college student (if you can imagine that graduate being pretty rich.) She’s not doing much, just some part-time work and some socializing, taking in the LA scene, a pile of high heels in the passenger seat of her car and cigarettes in her glove box. She has also been a fanatical lover of Philip Marlowe and everything noir since high school. “I savored his words, studied his manners and methods,” she says. “I carried him with me like an idol.” So when her best friend Luke asks her to investigate his father, on the flimsiest of evidence — he’s found an unexplained Chanel receipt and thinks his dad is having an affair with a girl named Lori Lim — Song snaps up his offer. It fits with her notion of herself as a wisecracking private eye with a heart of gold, even though she knows deep down that she has no idea what she’s doing.

And as a matter of fact, everything goes fine for about fifteen minutes, until Song is whacked unconscious by an unknown assailant outside Lori Lim’s house. This knockout sends her spinning into a noir world where the body count begins to mount, beginning with a dead body she doesn’t recognize in the trunk of her car. Nothing is what she thinks it is, and nothing is what it should be according to the tropes of noir fiction she’s read all her life. She meets a femme fatale and she’s an overbearing mother; she meets a seductress and she’s an Asian schoolgirl who’s saving herself for her husband. Nothing endures but the cigarettes and the booze.

Steph Cha uses the themes of noir fiction to point out how brittle and outmoded the structure is. Seeping in around the edges like toxic waste are constructs of race and gender, as Song encounters white men who fetishize young Asian-American women. (There’s one particularly gross moment where Song finds revealing photos of a Korean-American girl in a hanbok, a Japanese-style school uniform, and a kimono. The man these photos are for doesn’t care about the specifics of ethnicity, just Asianness.) And what fuels Song’s detection, and her sense that justice must be done whatever the cost, is the ghost of her dead sister Iris, also entangled to her peril with a much-older white man. Indeed, Iris is the reason Song is so obsessed with Marlowe and noir in the first place. Family becomes its own mystery. “After what happened to Iris,” Song confesses, “the favorite character of my youth became a fixture in my life. I found more than fantasy in the world of noir, and I sank into the scorching bleakness with self-punishing relish.” But Song can’t live up to her hero Marlowe, and she can’t save her sister. The noir just keeps getting darker.

Juniper Song uses the phrases and similes of her hero like tossing back another bourbon. “She was about as hard to spot as a clown in a prison cafeteria, wearing just a shade less makeup.” “Mr. Cook was about as warm and playful as an onion.” “It took me a seventy-second minute to remember the BMW.” This prose isn’t always entirely successful, but who could really imitate Raymond Chandler’s baroque voice? And it makes sense: Song can’t live up to her hero in any other way, so why should she be able to live up to his prose, either? It’s not disastrous, just not delirious the way the actual Marlowe novels are. It’s workmanlike stuff. And if the language isn’t as evocative as the original, Steph Cha does pull out affecting reasons why detection takes place.

My one question about this novel is this: it’s the first of a series. The body count in this novel is so high that I can’t imagine what’s next. Where could Song possibly go from here? I’m quite curious about the second novel in the series, Beware Beware, and I’m likely to pick that up sometime soon.

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